By Preston Wilder
We open in silence then bullets explode out of nowhere, splintering the silence. Five young soldiers run for their lives, down a silent Dunkirk street – but the bullets keep coming and they’re felled, one by one, all but one young man who manages to scale a wall and escape, bullets thudding into the wood beside him. This is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who’ll survive other hairy situations as the film goes on – though in fact that violent opening is atypical, nor is Dunkirk really an action movie. Its default tone is grave and elegiac, observing from a distance with Hans Zimmer’s score humming in the background.
That’s appropriate, because Dunkirk wasn’t really a victory. A Nazi leaflet in the opening minutes sets out the situation: it’s May 1940 and Allied troops are completely surrounded, pushed all the way back to the English Channel with the enemy around them. “But it’s right there! You can practically see it!” cries one British man, ‘it’ being Britain which is indeed just across the water – but committing troop-ships to rescuing the stranded soldiers (over 300,000 of them) would be foolish when they’re sitting ducks for enemy fire, and Churchill knows the Battle of Britain is imminent. All the troops at Dunkirk can hope for – as the Nazi leaflet gleefully points out – is “a miracle”.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk takes place in this moment of suspended reality, which explains its woozy, anticipatory feel. The film is composed of three stories (‘The Mole’, ‘The Sea’ and ‘The Air’) which are set – or begin – on different days, but Nolan cuts between them so they seem to be taking place simultaneously. Our sense of time is collapsed; like The Thin Red Line (though less portentously), it’s more tone-poem than narrative. The “miracle” happened, of course; most of the soldiers were rescued, the Dunkirk spirit most apparent in the hundreds of ‘little ships’ (a flotilla of non-military craft, some volunteered, others pressed into service) which played a major role in the evacuation – but the film doesn’t really build to this, the flotilla kind of appearing in the distance without any Spielbergian catharsis. Dunkirk’s most typical image is perhaps a panoramic shot of soldiers on the beach – a vast, flat expanse of brown sand, grey-blue skies and a few silhouetted clumps of men, a shot as indistinct yet quietly breathtaking as the film itself.
Nolan isn’t political, which might be a flaw but in this case is an asset. WW2 is invariably seen as ‘a good war’ – yet the film is neither jingoistic nor reflexively anti-war, setting up camp in the grey areas. ‘The Sea’ is about an old mariner (Mark Rylance) who sails to France to help the evacuation – and his motives are impeccably patriotic, but he and his son pick up a damaged, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and it all ends in tragedy. On the beach, the soldiers’ camaraderie starts to fray, curdled by the knowledge that they’re all competing for the few available spots on the troop-ships. (Should the wounded even be evacuated? “One stretcher takes the space of seven family men.”) Only ‘The Air’ is uncomplicated, featuring Tom Hardy as a brave RAF pilot – and it’s mostly used as relief from the claustrophobic feeling on the ground, plus a chance for Nolan to stage some exemplary dogfights.
Dunkirk is a minor-key work from a director best-known for elaborately engineered puzzles like Inception, The Prestige and the Batman trilogy – and the only real problem with the film is that Nolan’s sensibility doesn’t always gel with the plaintive, poetic tone he’s going for here. For all his sci-fi dabblings, he’s a down-to-earth fellow. Interstellar was a three-hour space fantasy which turned out to hinge on a father’s love for his daughter – a development some found bathetic, others devastating. Dunkirk, too, ends on something quite banal: Churchill’s iconic “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is fair enough (it did happen, after all) but is also precisely what you’d expect a film called Dunkirk to end on. Terrence Malick in The Thin Red Line invoked higher powers and avenging spirits; Nolan’s instincts are closer to the History Channel.
Still, you can’t expect a film with an estimated $150 million budget to take the high road forever. Dunkirk is already its own miracle, a respectful reconstruction that supplies both tension and gravitas – and, despite coming out in polarised times, goes beyond heroes and villains; even the Nazis remain an abstraction, mostly unseen, a nameless dread in the film’s suspended reality. A final caption dedicates the movie “to all those whose lives were impacted” – and the breadth of that dedication goes beyond soldiers to civilians, other Allies, even the Germans themselves (who of course had their own losses). Nolan’s unshowy humanism does credit to himself, and to his subject.
DIRECTED BY Christopher Nolan
STARRING Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
UK/US 2017 106 mins